Sports, Football

Can Myles Willis Turn No. 23 Into No. 1?

It’s a perfect day for football. Autumn will follow the Boston College football team to South Carolina eventually, but on this October Saturday, summer rules. Grills are firing by the thousands, Friar’s Tavern readies gallons of Jet Fuel for the thirstiest breed of tailgaters, and the baby-blue sky creates a striking contrast with the tens of thousands of orange-clad Tigers fans swarming Death Valley.

BC is playing Clemson, the No. 3 team in the country, and to the horror of the increasingly frustrated horde of home-team fans, an entire quarter has elapsed—but the scoreboard still reads 0-0. That’s about to change.

Second and 10, Chase Rettig takes the snap—it’s a draw. Rookie running back Myles Willis takes the handoff, gets a diving block from his tight end, and turns on the jets, bursting into wide space. Nearly 400 ecstatic BC fans, assuming Andre Williams is barreling down the field, holler a variation of “Dre” or “Andre” as Willis shrugs a freshman defender and finishes his 38-yard trip to the end zone. Later in the day, they’ll realize that No. 44 was on the sideline. Right now, though, they’re simply savoring BC’s unexpected lead. In the end zone, as the rumbling boos of the Clemson faithful score the aftermath of his first career rushing touchdown, Willis does the same.

Almost one year, 16 pounds of muscle, and countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches later, it’s inevitable. Well, actually, he’s inevitable.

“If the shoe fits, you gotta wear it, and I just beat everybody constantly,” Willis said, stifling a laugh.

“I mean, it gets to the point now, like I feel bad,” he continued. “I started nicknaming myself ‘The Inevitable.’”

Willis is, of course, referring to the now defunct college football video game, NCAA 14. According to the sophomore running back, he’s the best on the team— and quarterback Tyler Murphy is often a victim of his expertise, allegedly. Willis hates playing as himself or as BC, though—his superstition means that a fumble or bad performance on the screen spurs fears of similar problems on game day.

Ever since Williams played the last down of his record-obliterating senior season in Shreveport, L.A., Willis has been tapped as a leader of BC’s running back hydra. With 346 yards and two touchdowns off of 60 carries last year, the Georgia native excelled when called upon, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He posed a threat in the air, recording five catches for 60 yards and a touchdown, and returned 30 kickoffs over the course of the season. Not much has been said about who Willis is, though. Most stories tend to circle back to comparisons with Williams—played-out discussions of the passing of wisdom and talent from the Doak Walker Award-winner to his understudy. To begin understanding Myles Willis, it helps to look backward.

“I mean he just absolutely is like a little kid on Christmas morning, every day,” drawled Willis’ high school football coach, Marist’s Alan Chadwick, over the phone one afternoon.

Chadwick was eager to talk about Willis—just about everyone is. The coach affirmed an interview request with instructions to call anytime and noted that Marist Football still loves Willis to death.

“He’s worked my camps every year that I have for little kids,” Chadwick said. “And I’ll be up there speaking in front of the kids and all the other coaches are back in the background kind of jerking around and all that stuff, but Myles is right up there next to me hanging on every single word.”

Since he began playing football in kindergarten, or whenever the earliest age he was allowed to play was—he can’t remember anymore—Willis has played for just three head coaches and occupied almost every position on the field other than kicker. During his high school years with Chadwick, he spent time on both sides of the line of scrimmage, playing in the secondary his sophomore year before becoming the team’s starting quarterback for his junior and senior seasons.

I’ll be up there speaking in front of the kids and all the other coaches are back in the background kind of jerking around and all that stuff, but Myles is right up there next to me hanging on every single word.

As quarterback and captain, Willis spearheaded a predominantly option-based offense and became acquainted with different defenses and the art of making lightning-quick decisions—invaluable skills for a college running back. What Willis still considers his most valuable trait—his competitive nature—was there long before high school, though.

Willis brings up two diametrically opposed football memories. In the first he is 10 or 11 years old. It’s the first thought that comes to his mind. His team is 2-0, heading on its first road trip. There’s music playing in the background, and it’s a sizeable crowd for a little league game. Willis and his team are so nervous they can barely warm up, let alone play. Before long, they’re losing badly. It’s 40-something to nothing and the clock is winding down, but Willis is still running, chucking up passes, and acting like his team can claw back into the game. They lose, but he never stops competing, and Willis’ dad, his coach, is proud of him. Willis believes this is the moment his dad realized he was a true competitor. This is his most lasting memory of football growing up.

The second memory is a happier one. Willis is wearing No. 18 and playing for the Colts. It’s his first year at quarterback. He favors the run significantly more than Peyton Manning. Naked bootleg, 18-sweep—Willis feints to the right and gets to the sideline. Breaking into fourth gear, he crosses into the end zone for his first touchdown. His father runs with him along the edge of the field, jumping up and down and celebrating his son’s moment.

How important are these two memories? It’s not completely crazy to think they may represent two forces swirling and battling, pushing Willis forward: a love of the game and fierce desire to compete, and a lurking fear of what could happen if he doesn’t do everything in his power to succeed.

“When you really break it down, the difference between a five-yard run and an 80-yard touchdown, a lot of time’s it’s the little things,” Willis explained. “But if you’re consistent in what you do on every play, then you never know which play’s gonna be the 80-yard touchdown. You never know if that back side safety’s gonna make a wrong move, and that’s gonna open up the front lane, and you’re gone.”

BC officially lists Willis at 5-foot-9, 203 pounds—he ate and worked his way up from 187 pounds over the course of the year, and now that his body is capable of withstanding more punishment, he’s focusing on consistency. That means thinking about football constantly and finding moments of relief only when the game is over.

“I wake up heart beating fast because I was dreaming about scoring a touchdown, or preparing for whatever blitzes they might come at and how to attack the defense,” Willis said, describing his nights leading up to a game. “I’m always that type of person thinking the game, and it’s almost like a relief once the game is over because you can take a rest because you spent so much time with your mind circled around the game that it’s ridiculous.”

Last Saturday, Willis 2.0 premiered in BC’s 30-7 win over UMass at Gillette Stadium. As one of the fastest players on the team and a possessor of “competitive speed”—the ability to run his best when chased by defensive backs looking to rip his head from his shoulders—Willis always poses a breakaway threat.

Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

At his core, Willis remains a flashy one-cut, outside speed runner. Just get north and go, try to book it past everybody. Attempting to become BC’s serviceable every-down back means developing a bigger power running game, though, which is exactly what Willis has done. It’s this combination of style—speed, flash, and power—that can turn Willis into a deadly threat on all four downs.

While the big run never came on Saturday, Willis showed he’s capable of making the transition from a fleet-footed sprinter to a barreling north-south runner. Splitting carries with his classmate Tyler Rouse, Willis picked up a touchdown and 57 yards on 16 carries and took a bruising rushing and blocking up the middle.

When you really break it down, the difference between a five-yard run and an 80-yard touchdown, a lot of time’s it’s the little things,” Willis explained. “But if you’re consistent in what you do on every play, then you never know which play’s gonna be the 80-yard touchdown. You never know if that back side safety’s gonna make a wrong move, and that’s gonna open up the front lane, and you’re gone.

So, what happens next? Can Willis become the guy for BC? Does BC even need the guy? Addazio’s running back pipeline is loaded with young talent. Between the sophomores,Willis and Rouse, and the freshmen—Jon Hilliman, Marcus Outlow, and Richard Wilson—there are some seriously big bodies in the mix and a variety of running styles at BC’s disposal.

One thing is certain, though—when Williams graduated, Willis’ place on the team began to change.

Home never drifts too far from Willis’ mind. Any chance he gets to hook up his iPod in the locker room means two things: Atlanta rap, and groans from teammates who are sick of Willis’ Atlanta rap. He talks to his family constantly, leaning on them for support as he attempts to shoulder the stress of becoming a leader.

“It’s different because you feel a lot older than you actually are,” Willis said. “A lot of the times, I feel, I feel like a senior. Andre left, and I’m stepping in his spot, but really you gotta remember you’re only a sophomore, and everything’s different for everyone.”

Willis speaks like a leader already. Describing the strengths and styles of his teammates and the potential of the running back unit, Willis comes off as humble yet confident, flattering but utterly sincere. Rouse? He’s a really well-balanced type of runner. Hilliman and Wilson? They are two big, strong kids. Outlow? Well, Outlow reminds Willis of Willis, nice feet and really nice hips.

The growth isn’t lost on Addazio, who called Willis a veteran and noted his confidence, but also pointed out the double-edged sword of Willis’ obsession with detail.

“I think the thing Myles has to fight against is, he and Rouse, they’re so accountable, they’re so determined that they almost try too hard sometimes,” Addazio said. “They want everything perfect, they’re like that. Just relax and go play a little bit.”

The perfectionism goes back to the very beginning. With his dad as his coach, Willis grew up trained to think like a coach, correcting mistakes in his mind as soon as they happened, and making adjustments even before he could be told. To this day, when he lets down a coach, inside he feels like he’s letting down his dad.

It’s a perfect day for football if your name is Myles Willis. The sky is clear and the late-summer sun is baking the Alumni Stadium turf deep into the 80s, but it doesn’t come close to fazing the kid from Georgia. Willis is sweating from top to bottom. Friday night’s ACC match against Pittsburgh is on the mind—it has been ever since he ran back into the tunnel immediately after the UMass game.

For Willis, Friday’s home opener presents another chance to explode on the field. It’s another opportunity to break tackles, hit the open lane, and unleash his competitive speed. It’s another 60 minutes of the game he’s played for as long as he can remember, the game capable of making him nervous simply because he’s worried that he’s not already nervous. It’s another day of doing what he loves, and making his family and friends proud in the process. It’s another chance for Myles Willis to become The Inevitable.

Featured Image by Graham Beck / Heights Senior Staff

September 4, 2014